Understanding John Edgar Wideman
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Among the many gifted African American authors who emerged in the 1970s and 80s, John Edgar Wideman is one of the most challenging and innovative. His analytical mind can turn almost any topic into an intellectual adventure, whether it is playground basketball, the blues, the prison experience, father-son relationships, or the stories he lived or heard growing up in the impoverished section of Pittsburgh known as Homewood. In Understanding John Edgar Wideman, D. Quentin Miller offers a comprehensive overview of Wideman's writings, which range from the critically acclaimed books of the Homewood Trilogy to lesser known writings such as the early novels A Glance Away and The Lynchers. Notably Miller includes the first scholarly analysis of Writing to Save a Life, Wideman's recently published meditation on the military trial and execution of the father of civil rights martyr Emmett Till.

In his fiction, nonfiction, and works that artfully combine both forms, Wideman has employed a multilayered and often difficult writing style in order to explore a wide range of topics. Miller tackles such topics as African American folk history, the intersection of personal and public history, the confluence of oral and written traditions, and the quest for meaning in nihilistic urban settings where black families struggle against crime, poverty, and despair. Miller also shows how Wideman's singular personal history is interwoven into his writings. His impressive accomplishments, including an Ivy League education and numerous literary honors, have come alongside family tragedies. By the time his sixth novel was published, both his brother and son were serving life sentences for murder, a source of anguish that he wrestled with in Brothers and Keepers and Fatheralong.

Wideman writes with such authority on so many subjects that readers frequently have no idea what to expect with a new publication. Understanding John Edgar Wideman is thus a necessary guide to a prolific, varied, and essential oeuvre.



Publié par
Date de parution 15 janvier 2018
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781611178258
Langue English

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UNDERSTANDING CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN LITERATURE Matthew J. Bruccoli, Founding Editor Linda Wagner-Martin, Series Editor
D. Quentin Miller

The University of South Carolina Press
2018 University of South Carolina
Published by the University of South Carolina Press
Columbia, South Carolina 29208
27 26 25 24 23 22 21 20 19 18
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data can be found at http://catalog.loc.gov/ .
ISBN: 978-1-61117-824-1 (hardcover)
ISBN: 978-1-61117-825-8 (ebook)
Front cover photograph: Ulf Andersen, www.ulfandersen.photoshelter.com
To Julie
Series Editor s Preface
Chapter 1
Understanding John Edgar Wideman
Chapter 2
The First Three Novels
Chapter 3
Homewood Bound
Chapter 4
Brothers and Fathers
Chapter 5
Enter Philadelphia
Chapter 6
Creolizing Genres
Chapter 7
Wideman s Short Fiction
The Understanding Contemporary American Literature series was founded by the estimable Matthew J. Bruccoli (1931-2008), who envisioned these volumes as guides or companions for students as well as good nonacademic readers, a legacy that will continue as new volumes are developed to fill in gaps among the nearly one hundred series volumes published to date and to embrace a host of new writers only now making their marks on our literature.
As Professor Bruccoli explained in his preface to the volumes he edited, because much influential contemporary literature makes special demands, the word understanding in the titles was chosen deliberately. Many willing readers lack an adequate understanding of how contemporary literature works; that is, of what the author is attempting to express and the means by which it is conveyed. Aimed at fostering this understanding of good literature and good writers, the criticism and analysis in the series provide instruction in how to read certain contemporary writers-explicating their material, language, structures, themes, and perspectives-and facilitate a more profitable experience of the works under discussion.
In the twenty-first century Professor Bruccoli s prescience gives us an avenue to publish expert critiques of significant contemporary American writing. The series continues to map the literary landscape and to provide both instruction and enjoyment. Future volumes will seek to introduce new voices alongside canonized favorites, to chronicle the changing literature of our times, and to remain, as Professor Bruccoli conceived, contemporary in the best sense of the word.
Linda Wagner-Martin, Series Editor
I would like to thank a group of students in my Selected African American Writers course (fall 2013) who resisted Hoop Roots so much that it made me look at Wideman more deeply than I ever had before. Thanks also to Suffolk University for granting me a sabbatical leave to get my work done and to the Boston Athenaeum for giving me a spectacular space in which to complete it.
Understanding John Edgar Wideman
The point isn t replicating some other writer. The point is expressing myself, being myself.
Wideman, God s Gym , 173
I demand that readers meet me halfway, that they participate and think and open themselves up to confronting some stuff that maybe they haven t thought about before, some feelings they re not willing to own up to. To that extent the very nature of what I do means if I m not upsetting somebody, not getting under their skin in some way, what I m doing is probably not working.
TuSmith, Conversations with John Edgar Wideman , 144
These two epigraphs capture something of the defiance, confidence, and challenges of John Edgar Wideman s work. Wideman is a tough writer in every sense of the word: a man who has been hardened by the circumstances of his life, who writes about difficult subjects in a difficult style, and who is not afraid to examine wounds or even to dig deeper into wounds to analyze their causes and effects. His works resist categorization, and he does not fit neatly with the other African American writers who flourished in the post-Black Arts Movement era of the 1970s and 1980s. Toni Morrison might provide the closest comparison: both authors are concerned with black history (and both have a particular fascination with the murder of Emmett Till), both write about family, both are comfortable moving between esoteric allusions and black vernacular speech ( the academy and the street, 1 in Wideman s words), and both confront trauma and damage as they produce works that cannot be fully understood or appreciated in a single reading. And yet the comparison does not hold up for long. Morrison tends to focus on female characters, while Wideman s universe is predominately masculine. Morrison s works are rarely autobiographical, whereas Wideman s often are. As Keith Byerman has argued, Unlike Morrison, Wideman offers little optimism, at least in the first half of his career. 2 Finally, Morrison s works have been widely read and lauded, culminating in her winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. Although Wideman has been recognized with a MacArthur Grant and a handful of prominent literary prizes, literary history has not been as kind to him, and he has certainly not enjoyed the widespread readership that Morrison has.
Regarded as a quirky genius following the publication of his first three novels in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Wideman deliberately retrenched and reemerged in the 1980s to great acclaim with three works of fiction together known as the Homewood Trilogy (1981-83), his memoir Brothers and Keepers (1984), and a flurry of other books. This blistering output of impressive work continued into the 1990s. Since then, his writing has slowed considerably, and his works published in the last decade have not enjoyed anything like the attention his earlier ones received, particularly those from the 1980s. True to the statements that serve as the epigraphs above, though, he has never been a writer who sought mainstream fame or who pandered to readers who were not willing to do the hard work of engaging with the layers of his work. His oeuvre represents the relentless struggle to understand and communicate a difficult, complex vision. Readers who approach him casually are likely to be confused. Readers who dedicate themselves to his work are likely to be rewarded (if also exhausted) intellectually, aesthetically, and emotionally.
Life and Career
Wideman was born on June 14, 1941, in Washington, D.C. His mother, Bette French, and his father, Edgar Wideman, figure prominently in his fiction and nonfiction. It could even be argued that a primary tension in Wideman s work is an attempt to resolve the aspects of his parents personalities that trace back through their lineage: his mother s unstinting religious faith and perseverance versus his father s distant stoicism. His first name is an homage to his grandfather John French, a nearly mythical figure in his work, who exuded life and energy until his ignoble death in a bathroom. In Wideman s story Backseat, meditating on the nature of names, he writes, When I published my first novel, I wanted my father s name to be part of the record so I was John Edgar Wideman on the cover. Now the three names of my entitles sound pretentious to me, stiff and old-fashioned. I d prefer to be just plain John Wideman, but can t shake the Edgar ( All Stories 42). Metaphorically, Wideman cannot shake his family, or his fate, or his connection to his father, who is rendered as a distant figure, a bully, and an isolated old man at various places in his work.
Wideman was the oldest of five siblings raised in the Homewood and Shadyside neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. Shadyside was a white-dominated neighborhood, and although moving there afforded him certain opportunities through access to better schools, the family had to move back to Homewood because of financial struggles. Homewood was in a period of decline, and like his neighborhood, Wideman s family deteriorated over time. In a late story about his mother, Weight, he describes how she persevered in spite of a son in prison for life, twin girls born dead, a mind-blown son who roams the streets with everything he owns in a shopping cart, a strung-out daughter with a crack baby, a good daughter who miscarried the only child her dry womb ever produced, in spite of me and the rest of my limp-along, near-to-normal siblings and their children-my nephews doping and gangbanging, nieces unwed, underage, dropping babies as regularly as the seasons ( God s Gym 2). The dire circumstances of his family unfolded gradually over the course of his life. Wideman s upbringing did not forecast the remarkable (and perhaps exaggerated) family dysfunction detailed here. His Homewood years were not rosy, but they did not resemble this kind of devastation. Many of his renditions of his early family life describe a matriarchy in which his mother, grandmother, and aunts largely raised him while his father worked a series of jobs to support the family. Wideman had to take his masculine cues from his peers, particularly on urban basketball courts, which became a recurrent setting his work, especially in the latter half of his oeuvre.
Recognized for his intellect from an early age, Wideman was awarded a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, where he played basketball and studied the largely white literary canon, particularly the European modernists such as James Joyce and T. S. Eliot, who influenced his early novels. His years at an Ivy League school were intellectually stimulating and foundational, but they also intensified feelings of racial alienation that deeply scarred him. In Brothers and Keepers he recalls one particular incident when a smartass, whole-lot-hipper-than-you 3 white student challenged his taste in music, claiming, of all things, that he did not understand the blues. This challenge provoked in Wideman a complex mix of anger and self-consciousness about his status as a black man trying to succeed in a largely white world. He sometimes came to view his college experience as flight rather than journey, or as a ticket out of Homewood rather than the keys to a kingdom. His higher education continued with a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, where he wrote his thesis on an eighteenth-century precursor of the postmodern novel, Laurence Sterne s Tristram Shandy . He returned to the University of Pennsylvania as the first tenured black professor of English. A watershed moment occurred when a group of black students approached him in 1968 and asked him to teach a course in black literature. He turned them down, claiming he did not know enough about that literary tradition to teach it. This conversation brought him up short and caused him to retreat for nearly a decade while he read black literature intensely and turned for source material to the neighborhood in Pittsburgh where he grew up-Homewood-to listen to family stories and retell them as closely as possible to the way they were communicated to him. Although his later works do not replicate the techniques he used in the Homewood Trilogy, this period left an indelible mark on his work, not only in its emphasis on authentic voices but also on the attention he pays to the workings of stories.
In 1973, following his time as a professor at Penn, Wideman traveled with his wife, Judy, and their two sons to Laramie, Wyoming, where he accepted a position at the university there. It was during this period that he returned to Homewood in his imagination, but Homewood also came to him, quite literally, in a way that would forever change the trajectory of his work. On November 15, 1975, his brother Robby was involved in a botched robbery in Pittsburgh that resulted in a senseless murder. Robby and his coconspirators went on the lam and ended up at John s house in Wyoming. They were caught and arrested soon afterward, and Robby was sentenced to life in prison. Wideman s attempts to connect with his incarcerated brother and to argue for his release provided the raw material for a good deal of his fiction and nonfiction.
In the mid-1980s Wideman returned to the East Coast, specifically to the University of Massachusetts, where he taught from 1986 to 2004. It was during this time that another murder altered the trajectory of his career. In 1986 his son Jacob, then sixteen, suffered what might be considered a psychotic break and acted on a dark fantasy he had been harboring throughout his troubled youth: during a summer camp in Arizona, he murdered his roommate and was arrested after a weak attempt at flight. Wideman s willingness to go deep into his brother s experience in prison is balanced by his reluctance to explore his son s. The incident and all that surrounds it is clearly too painful for Wideman to write about except in limited or indirect ways. Tellingly, in a 1997 interview in response to a question about how he exposes his personal life in his work, he said, I m spilling precisely the amount that I want to spill. It s always revealing and concealing. If I show you my bleeding hand, it may be because I don t want you to see my bleeding foot. 4 The relationship between fathers and sons is another recurrent touchstone in his work, and the traumatic disruption of his own efforts to be a good father has intensified this motif considerably.
It is clear that this event also put a irremediable strain on his marriage. In 2000 Wideman and his wife, Judy, divorced after thirty-five years of marriage. In addition to Jacob, the couple raised two other children-Daniel, a writer and editor at Lulu Books, a small press that published Wideman s most recent story collection ( Briefs , 2010), and Jamila, who was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated (March 17, 1997) as a standout basketball player at Stanford (she went on to star in the WNBA). His late writings, notably The Island: Martinique , discuss his relationship with Catherine Nedonchelle, a French writer whom he married in 2004. Since retiring from Brown University in 2014, Wideman has largely retreated from the public eye.
In contrast with his prolific output in the 1980s and 1990s, Wideman has produced very little in recent years. After a six-year hiatus he recently published Writing to Save A Life (2016) about the father of Emmett Till. His most recent novel, Fanon (2008), reveals his weariness with his writing career in no uncertain terms, and his most recent story collection, Briefs (2010), is a collection of flash fiction, a stripped-down form that marks a clear departure from the longform memoirs and novels from his most successful period. In his recent work he reveals his frustration with the way his culture has devolved, with the way his family has disintegrated, and with the reception of serious literary authors in a world increasingly given over to the sound bites of superficial media.
It is possible that Wideman has other tricks up his sleeve in the twilight of his career. He is known, after all, for publishing his best-known works (the Homewood Trilogy and Brothers and Keepers ) after a seven-year disappearing act. Still, his recent works have revealed a weariness that would not have been imaginable when he was at the apex of his career, publishing prolifically, winning awards, and teaching. He was ubiquitous in the early 1990s, writing in a prominent magazine about the Rodney King riots, receiving his second PEN/Faulkner award in 1993 as well as a MacArthur Genius Grant, editing the Best American Short Stories in 1996, and publishing groundbreaking meditations on the intersection of race and incarceration. The moment is perhaps right for Wideman to be reassessed and rediscovered, given the complexity of our current period of racial unrest. He will be most useful not as a goldmine of slogans or proclamations but as an earnest artist who stared hard at a long history of personal and collective suffering and did not flinch.
Tracie Church Guzzio, one of the prominent critics of Wideman s work, has pointed to a paucity of scholarship on Wideman 5 in her 2011 study. Indeed, the critical monographs on Wideman s contemporary Toni Morrison number in the hundreds, while there are currently fewer than ten critical books on Wideman, as well as a couple dozen important articles and a 1998 collection of interviews. The Wideman author society has endeavored to keep scholarship on Wideman alive at the annual American Literature Association convention, but attendance at their panels has dwindled in recent years. Wideman s diminished output and public withdrawal has probably contributed to the problem, coupled with the fact that one of his most recent books ( Briefs ) was put out by a small publisher, having considerably little commercial potential. This fate would have been difficult to predict in the 1980s and 1990s when Wideman was producing a steady flow of critically acclaimed work. There was an entire conference dedicated to his writings at the University of Virginia in 2000. The rich, dense nature of his writing, the intensity of his subject matter, and the force of his intellect position him for a strong revival in upcoming years, much as his literary forefather James Baldwin-who had faded into obscurity in the years before his death in 1987 despite having been the most prominent black author of the early 1960s-has enjoyed a spectacular critical revival in the twenty-first century.
Baldwin s and Wideman s careers are parallel in a number of ways. Intellectuals known for leaving the shabby neighborhoods of their youth for periods of expatriation (notably in Europe), both have suffered because they occasionally countered assumptions about what black writers should write about. Baldwin s second novel, Giovanni s Room (1956), about white bisexual characters trying to come to terms with their identity in Paris, raised more than a few eyebrows, especially after his first two books had spoken about race in more expected ways. Wideman s first two novels focus nearly as much on the dilemmas of aging, alcoholic white men as they focus on the alienated young black men who encounter them. Both authors exhibit artistic and intellectual skills that could be described as intimidating. Both were occasionally accused of being out of touch with the world they wrote about because of their tendency to spend time in exile. And in interviews and their writings, both have come across as being indifferent to the opinions of their detractors or their dwindling readership, following the empowering message of Langston Hughes in his famous 1926 essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, which concludes with the conviction that black artists have to be true to their own vision rather than to try to please audiences, whether they are black or white.
The imprisoned journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal wrote of Wideman as a representative of his generation for whom the integration of white and black America became a virtual recipe for estrangement. 6 James Coleman, in the first book-length study on Wideman, spoke of a progression from his depiction of the black intellectual s isolation from the black community to the black intellectual in a meaningful relationship with the black community. 7 Although it might have been easy to affirm this assessment in the late 1980s when Coleman s study was published, largely as an endorsement of the Homewood Trilogy, it would be much harder to accept it now. Wideman s work does not conform easily to a simple formula like progression, and if anything, his recent works such as Fanon reveal an artist whose feelings of alienation are at least as strong as they had been in his early works. The interviews collected in Bonnie TuSmith s 1998 collection present some tension around assumptions about what black writers should or must write about. Wideman comes across as wary of such questions and reluctant to get trapped into the rhetoric of race, a concept he evaluates in a sophisticated way in Fatheralong and elsewhere.
Coleman s work provided a stepping stone for some critics who followed (notably Dorothea Mbalia in her 1995 study) and a roadblock for others. Coleman s tendency to divide Wideman s works into those that fail or succeed according to the way they embrace or eschew the notion of black community provides one legitimate inroad into the complexity of the arc of Wideman s career but also tends to constrain readings of Wideman s work that are more nuanced. The works associated with Homewood are outnumbered by the rest of Wideman s oeuvre, but the Homewood books are often held up as the pinnacle of his achievement while the others are devalued. Recent critics have had to work hard to move past the assumptions of Coleman s study in order to develop new interpretations of Wideman s work and/or to delve deeper into it. This trend does not hold in Europe, however, where criticism of Wideman s work (showcased in a special issue of Callaloo in 1999) is far ranging. Book-length studies by Keith Byerman and Guzzio and a collection edited by Byerman and TuSmith 8 in recent years have built on a host of articles on Wideman to demonstrate that the fullness and richness of his work are now being explored more thoroughly in academic circles even as his popular readership has declined.
Themes and Features of Wideman s Writing
Wideman is known primarily for his meditations on race, which, like most of his other frequent subjects, are as conscious of culture and history as they are reflective of individual experience. In a 1995 interview he summarized the association between his writing and questions of black identity: writing, any art, has something to do with the culture, and given certain formations of African American culture, yes, key issues-oppression, poverty, violence, for instance-are foregrounded whether you like it or not. But there is always more to a group than its sociological profile. 9 He frequently underscores the distinction between art and sociology and is wary of the kind of thinking that reduces a subtle, complex exploration of the meaning of race. There are many instances in his work when characters who think purely in terms of race find themselves in dangerous situations: in the novel The Lynchers (1973) a group of black men conspire to hang a white policeman as a symbolic gesture, but the plan also involves the murder of a black prostitute and results in the death of one of the group s members. In Sent for You Yesterday (1983) a black woman attempts to strengthen her race by having a multitude of black children and protecting them in her house, which she calls the ark ; but when she gives birth to a light-skinned boy, the other children participate in his destruction. In a lengthy meditation on the dreaded paradigm of race in Fatheralong (1998), he expresses his more measured take on race cogently: I don t need to hate white people in order to love myself. But I also don t need white people to tell me what I am or what I can strive to be or tell me if I ve made it or not (xxiv). The horrors of the past stemming from (but not limited to) slavery weigh heavily on him; and yet he has also managed to navigate the predominately white world at Penn, Oxford, the University of Wyoming, the University of Massachusetts, and Brown University, not to mention the white publishing world or (on a personal level) long-term relationships with white women. Perhaps this is why Ishmael Reed has dubbed Wideman a mulatto writer, neither black nor white. 10 Wideman might be the first to question why the same term might not be defined as both black and white, but then again, alienation is perhaps his most prominent subject.
If there is a consistent feature of Wideman s writing, it involves confrontation in an attempt to reconcile various opposing forces. In his introduction to The Best American Stories of 1996 , he wrote, Given our country s history, our history before it was a country, you d think the most American theme would be the inevitability of difference, the pain and consolation difference confers. 11 Race is the explicit context for this observation, but one might point to class or gender as other fields where difference provides both pain and consolation. Wideman has examined both male and female worlds, though perhaps not with the same success with which he has managed to navigate race or class. He insisted in one interview that the models of eloquence that were most important were the women in my family, but in another interview he bristled when a female interviewer labeled one of his characters a misogynist and claimed that this character s thinking is unrelenting in its degradation of the female. 12 His upbringing as described in memoirs such as Fatheralong and Hoop Roots (2001) reveals that he was largely raised by his mother, grandmother, and aunts, but that he was constantly in search of male heroes, role models, and companions. His most thoroughly developed fictional characters tend to be men, and it is fair to say that women do not often hold positions of authority or power in his work. Detractors might suggest that they are too frequently rendered as the objects of male sexual desire (with notable exceptions). There is a good deal of sexual content throughout his work, but it is often depicted in terms of contention rather than pleasure. In one memorable exchange in Hoop Roots , he browbeats a lover to share sex stories from her past. He recognizes his suspicious motives in coercing her do this, and although she complies, she quickly retreats into a damaged, private space. Some of Wideman s descriptions of sex border on the uncomfortable because of their frank nature and intensity, but as he reveals in the second epigraph above, he believes that he has done his job if his readers feel upset in some way.
Stylistically, Wideman is in his own category. Critics regarded his first two novels as an outgrowth of literary modernism, largely because they allude heavily to James Joyce and T. S. Eliot, and because their narrative methods, such as stream-of-consciousness, resemble those of novelists such as William Faulkner. During the high years of his career, critics were more likely to label Wideman a postmodernist, especially given his tendency to interrupt his stories to reveal the author s perspective and to demonstrate his consciousness of the ways in which stories work. But neither of these labels sticks for very long. Wideman is a writer who rarely writes the same way twice, even though he treats the same subjects repeatedly and even tells the same stories in different contexts. His work is saturated with the authentic speech of the people he knew on the streets of Homewood, or on the basketball court, or in his family. At the same time, he can construct sentences of dizzying lengths using erudite vocabulary and obscure allusions. Byerman has argued that Wideman s willingness to combine black vernacular traditions with postmodern techniques is a strength rather than a contradiction: he locates in them a connection, in, first, a digressive style that permits the introduction of different discourses, and second, the recovery of voices that are often suppressed. 13 Susan Pearsall quipped that his works are more or less inaccessible to readers lacking at least a college education, 14 and TuSmith suggested that he challenges his readers at every level. 15 He occasionally indulges in linguistic tours de force in which he puns and plays on the multiple meanings of words. As his brother Robby says to him in Fanon , Funny, you know, the craziest shit s what I like best. When you get off on words and get to rapping and signifying and shit (64). The fact that this line is delivered in Robby s voice testifies to Wideman s range and complexity.
Fueling his unique, ever-changing style is a willingness to experiment. In a 1983 interview he said, Any writing is a form of adventure, a form of play, a form of fun. Very serious play, and very difficult and involving play. The idea of writing a fairly conventional narrative, a plot that requires a fairly straightforward development, a novel that could be used as a model in bogus creative writing courses-that has no interest for me. 16 Although it is possible to see recurrent patterns in Wideman s work and to classify them, each of his works is unique and a departure from all the others. Even the three books that constitute the Homewood Trilogy are very different from one another in terms of style, form, theme, and voice. Within Wideman s term very serious play, many readers focus on the seriousness of his work, but the playfulness is important as well. The reader may get lost in a sentence that runs on for seventeen pages, but the author is clearly enjoying the freedom it gives him.
As a parallel to his writing, visual art is one of Wideman s recurrent obsessions. An early novel, Hurry Home (1970), is heavily steeped in descriptions of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. Wideman is particularly interested in the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti and in the Italian sculptor s pronouncements about art. In the novel Philadelphia Fire (1990) he writes, Alberto Giacometti revolted from his father Giovanni s aesthetic convention that known reality is identical with perceived reality (146). Perception is a key concept in Wideman: the title of his first novel A Glance Away (1967) comes from Giacometti s belief that the world changes irrevocably whenever one s concentration shifts. In God s Gym (2008) he writes, [Giacometti] understood art always failed. Art lied to him. People s eyes lied. No one ever sees the world as it is (108). In the novel Two Cities (1998), he addresses Giacometti directly: Invisible views. They are what attract me to your art. You force me to see something not there our eyes take snapshots from these snapshots we build a world of things with weight, shape, things that move and last. We believe in them. Depend on them (91). He is also interested in the work of Eadweard Muybridge, the pioneering photographer who attempted to capture objects in motion. Language is for Wideman an attempt to freeze moments that the artist perceives, generally through memory. Storytelling is the motif that allows him to circle back to significant moments, not necessarily to ascertain the facts of what actually happened, but to demonstrate a broader truth about the way a mind perceives experience.
The subjects of Wideman s work are as diverse as his stylistic experiments, but there are a number of motifs that recur: family dynamics, incarceration, basketball, the way history affects black American psychology, the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and the vital importance of stories. As Byerman notes, He has taken virtually every aspect of his experience and made it material for his art. What makes his story worth telling is that he has found the dramatic and storytelling possibilities in the things that most of us either merely accept, or dismiss, or try to conceal. 17 The attentive reader of Wideman s work is likely to finish a book with more questions than answers-sophisticated questions that will leave him or her thinking. As he says in Hoop Roots , A story expresses the unique name of something, doesn t try to explain something (194).
Wideman s literary influences, in addition to the aforementioned white modernists, are also varied, although he has declined to name them as such, saying that citing individuals as heroes or whatnot is like foregrounding an all-star team instead of foregrounding the game. 18 He dedicated one book to W. E. B. DuBois, whose famous theory of double-consciousness permeates Wideman s work. In a textbook example of DuBois s theory, he told an interviewer,
You can say that Wideman is a good writer; he uses Afro-American folklore, he knows this, that, or the other thing about his heritage and culture. You can make that argument, and show it in the work, and pat me on the back, but that doesn t get me out of the ghetto. It should, but it doesn t. If I do all that, I mean that is enough, but there is always an implied, invidious comparison: OK, Wideman does fine with Afro-American stuff, but on the other hand the real writers are doing so and so . To protect ourselves as critics and artists, we are forced to jump back and forth, measure ourselves against an imaginary mainstream, define what we are doing in somebody else s terms. It s almost like making excuses. It is a terrible bind. 19
In addition to DuBois, there are also frequent allusions in Wideman s work to Ellison s Invisible Man and occasionally to James Baldwin, whom he met in Amherst when they both taught there in the late 1980s and about whom he claimed to owe a tremendous debt to the example of his work implicitly and explicitly. 20 In a story in God s Gym he writes the following about the Black Arts Movement standard-bearer Amiri Baraka: The world is full of remarkable things One of my favorite lines from one of my favorite writers. Back in the day when I still pretended books worth talking about, people were surprised to discover Baraka a favorite of mine, as quietly integrated and nonconfrontational a specimen as I seemed to be of America s longest, most violently reviled minority (104). It is not so much Baraka s politics or style that he admires but the chances he d taken, chances in his art, in his life (104).
Art and politics have a vexed relationship in Wideman s work. In an interview with Ishmael Reed, he described how annoyed he becomes when people talk about rage in my fiction . I m the Prince of Rage. It sells books, I guess, or it makes reviews. 21 If there is one particular topic that consistently stirs him to action, if not to rage, it is the prison system. His analysis of the state of incarceration in America and his frequent calls for reform certainly put him at the vanguard of conversations about the confluence of prisons and the black community. In a 1999 essay in the Nation , he observed, Prison itself, with its unacceptably large percentage of men and women of color, is being transformed by the street values and street needs of a younger generation of prisoners to mirror the conditions of urban war zones and accommodate a fluid population who know their lives will involve inevitable shuttling between prison and the street. 22 In his introduction to Abu-Jamal s Live from Death Row (1995), he wrote, Prison walls are being proposed as a final solution. They symbolize our shortsightedness, our fear of the real problems caging us all. The pity is how blindly, enthusiastically, we applaud those who are constructing the walls dooming us (xxix). Brothers and Keepers , perhaps his best-known work, is a groundbreaking book in terms of the way it bears witness to the prison experience, especially insofar as prisons affect the families of the incarcerated.
Even though some of his more recent essays indicate an increased willingness to weigh in on current political issues, Wideman is an author primarily concerned with the self, particularly with the individual mind. Instances of social rebellion in his work-such as a plot to kill a white police officer in The Lynchers or his brother Robby s attempts at social activism in his high school, as described in numerous places-do not seem to produce lasting social change. His most recent novel is purportedly about the revolutionary Frantz Fanon, but it is actually about the way his own overactive creative mind prevents him from telling Fanon s story in a straightforward way so that people such as his brother, who are not particularly bookish, might understand it. His brother says, I give you credit for being an intelligent guy, but, you know, I got to wonder if writing an intelligent book s an intelligent idea (164). For all of Baraka s abstraction, he was trying to reach a mass audience. Wideman did so in the Homewood books in which he was deliberately publishing books accessible to a wide Black audience 23 (as he himself described it), but despite this accessibility, it is still difficult to say where he stands on a number of issues that might be deemed political. Byerman has classified him as one of a group of writers-including Toni Morrison, Ernest Gaines, and Charles Johnson-who immersed their readers in black history and culture without being committed to a particular political or social agenda. 24 The complexity of Wideman s thought process and his interpretation of the nature of art make it impossible to locate a straightforward political statement in his writing. Racism is an enduring subject within his work, but one cannot boil down his thick meditations on that subject into a coherent message. There are certainly recurrent motifs, though, that form a pattern: Wideman resists ideology and prefabricated notions of the truth; he is suspicious of systems that rob individuals of intellectual autonomy; he holds individuals and families above institutions; and he is deeply interested in expressions of folk culture, not as inherently pure or wise but as legitimate records of experience that should be taken seriously.
Two of these expressions of folk culture are recurrent subjects in his work: basketball and blues music. Both were compromised by his experiences in the Ivy League. He said in a 1985 interview, I learned to play kind of freelance, spontaneous, improvisational basketball. But for college basketball you had to learn systems, you had to put yourself within this kind of disciplined, coach-centered style. What I did was playground basketball and they erased that from the kids who came in. 25 His 2001 book Hoop Roots is an attempt to redraw what had been erased, to get readers to appreciate the deep meaning of playground hoop as a nearly sacred ritual and an art form, like classic African-American jazz (48). Wideman consistently compares his own method of writing to jazz as well, particularly in terms of hard work and improvisation. Blues-a variation on jazz-is a recurrent motif in his work. We hear strains of it within the prose, as when Tommy in Hiding Place (1981) is heard humming the blues or when his aunt Bess in that same work tells the story of her man singing his personal version of the blues. Brother, a main character in Sent for You Yesterday , substitutes scatting for actual speech. Moreover, as Guzzio has argued, The blues hero is a consistent character, repeated and revised throughout Wideman s work. 26 Although the blues hero has many characteristics, chief among them is the ability to convert suffering into survival. To some degree Wideman himself can be defined this way, and although it would be reductive to say that his works resemble the blues, it might be accurate to say that they are all variations on the blues as heard and retold by John Edgar Wideman.
The First Three Novels
Critics tend to separate Wideman s first three novels- A Glance Away (1967), Hurry Home (1970), and The Lynchers (1973)-from the rest of his work, and to deem them inferior. The general critique is that they are too imitative of white modernist classics and thus removed from Wideman s own experience and the voices of the people he once knew in Homewood. In a 1985 interview with Kay Bonetti, he underwrote this opinion to some degree. What do you value about the first three books? she asked. He responded, I don t look back that often. The work that s past is gone. 1 Although he did admit that his early works were valuable for a number of reasons- experiments with language, experiments with form, bringing to the fore black cultural material, history, archetypes, myths, the language itself -he also said, I think I had my priorities a little bit mixed up. I felt that I had to prove something about black speech, for instance, and about black culture, and that they needed to be imbedded within the larger literary frame. 2 The break between these first three works and the rest of his oeuvre is clear but perhaps not as dramatic as some critics have believed, and Guzzio has argued persuasively that these works are foundational. 3 The Homewood Trilogy ( chapter 3 ) and subsequent works appear less burdened by the weight of literary history than the first three novels are, or at least less connected to Europe, 4 as Wideman said in the same interview; but the balancing act between university-learned erudition and folk wisdom evident in the early work is a constant in Wideman s work.
A Glance Away is an ambitious first novel that initiates one of Wideman s prominent motifs: the exile and tortured return of an alienated young man. Although there is a large cast of characters, the intergenerational and interracial novel centers around Eddie Lawson, the only surviving male child in a black family. He is friends with a tragic figure named Brother Small, also black but with white skin through albinism, and Brother s story is entangled with that of Robert Thurley, a white, alcoholic English professor who conducts illicit affairs with young black men. There is a clear battle between Eddie and Thurley, but it is only about race on the surface. The deeper story examines the way men with overactive minds cope with their troubled pasts.
The novel s prologue is a lyrical montage of scenes of birth, sex, and death. The language is inventive, alliterative, mythical, and strongly reminiscent of great modernist novels by James Joyce or William Faulkner. Joycean neologisms like afterall and dedecorumed are interspersed with passages in which the charming family patriarch, DaddyGene, sings folk tunes and speaks in a black vernacular, high on wine, as he visits his daughter, who has just given birth to his grandson. DaddyGene-the earliest representation of Wideman s grandfather John French-is larger than life, a family god who shows equal enthusiasm for his work (hanging wallpaper) and his family life, although his tendency to overindulge in wine compromises both. The novel opens with the birth of his namesake, couched in nearly biblical terms: And he shall be called Eugene (3). The birth of his second grandson, Eddie, is much less ceremonial and tinged with tragedy: From a height, from a blessed height another fell, wingless, full of grief, sorrowing even as he plunged down through the darkness. Splat (12). Eddie s pessimism begins with this indelicate birth. His father is absent, his mother is young and scared, and his grandmother is ineffective and disapproving. His grandfather alone offers the spirit of life.
The splat of Eddie s birth is connected to the central action of the prologue: DaddyGene carries the young boy to church on his shoulders so that they can watch the spiritual exuberance of the church members. All the while he spits tobacco, which lands with a splat each time. The splat echoes again at DaddyGene s funeral as a clod of shoveled earth lands on his coffin. The prologue highlights the cycle of birth, sex, and death. Echoes of T. S. Eliot s poem The Waste Land in the prologue make the theme of compromised fertility prominent. The tobacco juice DaddyGene spits is a foul rain that lands on a landscape riddled with death, and yet DaddyGene exudes life and fecundity. He celebrates his grandsons and imparts advice to Eddie while they picnic on a verdant lawn. Faced with the burdens of a hero, Eddie has to find his way in the world without any male elders to guide him. His confusion as an adult stems from his inability to reconcile his role with his personality, tinged from birth with grief and sorrow. This character type-a man destined for greatness but incapable of personal happiness-is common throughout Wideman s work and can be read as a representation of the author.
The novel proper opens with Eddie s return from an asylum on Easter Sunday. He and his brother, Eugene, had both fought in the army, but only Eddie survived. His father, Clarence, absent during the birth descriptions in the prologue, has also died of drinking and a heart condition. The house is devoid of men: upon Eddie s return, his mother is ill, elderly, and embittered, and his sister Bette is her caretaker. Eddie is greeted by Brother, his best friend, and the two return to Eddie s home briefly to let his mother know he has arrived. She rejects them, however, and they go off to a local forest that houses homeless men (the Bums Forest, a recurrent site in Wideman s work). Eddie s and Brother s memories come alive there, and through a combination of storytelling and interior monologue, the reader begins to understand the nature of Eddie s crises. The dead weeds and mechanical nature of the landscape are emphasized, and Eddie witnesses a dark vision, which he calls a shadow. He feels somehow that he is falling into it. The forest becomes his unconscious mind, and he clearly feels guilt about having survived his elder brother. He also expresses pain born of a dearth of love from his father. Brother, who is loyal and not judgmental, provides the comfort his family does not.
The first section of the novel also introduces Thurley, a despondent alcoholic who can only lecture to his students after taking a drink. The counterpart to his ongoing despair comes in multiple forms: his drinking, his collection of antiques, his enjoyment of classical music, and especially his affairs with young black men. Part of what motivates Thurley is a neurotic form of racial anxiety. After his assignation with a nameless black boy, he writes in his diary, Consummation-the momentary reconciliation of black and white in the heat of coition (40). When he meets Eddie, who holds him in immediate contempt and orders him away from Brother, Thurley claims, I haven t come to prey on him . We wound up together because I m like him. Eddie, however, has a different interpretation: you re hungry and the price of nigger meat is cheap (50). Brother defends Thurley and reinforces his hopeful belief that race does not stand in the way of closeness. These three characters-one white, one black, and one with both black and white features-represent three distinct points of view that are initially difficult to reconcile. Wideman focuses on all three, but especially on Eddie and Thurley, both of whom are infected with some kind of poison, the origins of which are initially unclear.
Allusions to Eliot s The Waste Land arise frequently in Thurley s sections, indicating the poem s crises: humanity has become mechanical, a lack of fertility connects to a widespread spiritual malaise, and there might not be any resurrection after death nor any redemption after suffering. All these motifs surface as Thurley visits his friend Al to attend a church service on Easter. Prior to going, they drink gin and reflect on their shared history. We learn that Thurley, the last male heir of an aristocratic southern family, had been married to Eleanor, who has gone mad. He traces her madness to a drunken night in Italy when Al joined them in a wild threesome. This stark realization of the end of innocence forces the couple in opposite directions: Her moving steadily toward wanton insanity and me creeping back on my hands and knees to little boys (88). The fact that these boys tend to be black has to do with his southern heritage, as revealed in a short but telling memory of his black nanny, Hattie- the model for Aunt Jemima Thurley always thought of her later, bustling and black with that half anxious, half smiling moon of a face peering down at him, always going straight to the root of whatever he was feeling (72-73). Thurley s desperate trysts with young black boys can be interpreted as an attempt to return to his own youth and to reconcile his deeply troubled mind with the person who could get to the root of whatever he was feeling. His conscience plagues him throughout this section, causing guilt about his relationship with Eleanor and Al and what they did in bed on that fateful night in Italy. His flight from Hattie in this short remembered scene initiates a need to overcome his distance from her in terms of race, gender, and social class.
Eddie s return home for Easter is driven by his need to reconcile both with his mother and with his former lover, Alice. Memories continue to weigh on him, and he longs to return to a preserved past: He hoped so badly Alice would be home, that like Brother she would be waiting unchanged, even in the same clothes, as if time were never more than the space between a glance away and back (105). This quotation, which provides the novel s title, represents Eddie s awareness that circumstances have changed, coupled with his foolish nostalgia for a past that contained suffering and pain, some of which he caused. Eddie also tries to reconnect with his sister Bette, who has squandered her young adulthood caring for their mother. At first Eddie can think of nothing to say to his sister, but when Bette tells him how excited she is to have him back for Easter, he becomes animated, for Easter is the day his grandfather took him to see the sanctified dance and sing. Eddie s storytelling creates a vital space for the siblings to bond. This joy of storytelling and listening is shortlived, though, as Eddie realizes that he has worked to erase his past but that his mother has not. He urges Bette to run away, insisting that their mother will survive. Their mother has been listening to the conversation, and her response is to topple down the stairs to her death but only after pointing her crutches at Eddie and smiling, creating an image he will never be able to erase. He again runs from his house, screaming this time.
The death of Eddie s mother propels him not only out of his house but into his memory. He recalls his time at the asylum, a place that felt like a prison even though he was technically free to leave whenever he wished. In a letter to his mother and sister sent just before he returns for Easter, he pleads for their support: Deep inside there is only screaming, that or a dull, smothering silence. After we reach that deep, the only hope is to see a hand, or hear a quiet voice, anything outside that can be believed, that is as real as the madness (138). This is the condition he is in when he returns home, and the events on Easter do not lead to any such belief. He returns, desperately, to the church where he and his grandfather had once witnessed the joy of dancing, but all he encounters now is a belligerent wino and gathering mourners. Thurley attends a different church at the same time but is driven out of it by his own brand of madness-alcoholism. The second section of the novel ends with both protagonists aware of the persistence of their troubled pasts but unable to move past them. Thurley senses rain coming, but it is far from a cleansing rain: the petals on the trees he sees would float, mixing with the scum and acrid green to form mottled rainbows in stagnant pools (145).
The short third section of the novel brings together its three principle figures: Eddie, Thurley, and Brother meet in a mostly black bar where Eddie and Brother have gone to score drugs and Thurley has gone to seek company. As with their earlier meeting, there is extreme antagonism between Eddie and Thurley even though they both suffer from a similar kind of self-destructive affliction born of guilt. After much tense conversation, Thurley attempts to heal Eddie by confessing ideas he has spent much time formulating but kept largely inside himself: The spirit can t live on air, and especially the air that s inside our bodies. It flourishes when it touches other things-people, work (166). Eddie mocks him: You say you think you understand. The spirit needs this, needs that . Some people, the black ones you see around you, they live without spirit (167). Thurley tries to convince him that the substance he is seeking in this bar will not cure him, that they have to leave together and get through this night. It is Eddie who stands up and leads the threesome out, and Brother s voice takes over. He does not know where Eddie is leading them: at first they go to the Sanctified church, but they keep going, eventually ending up on a rock in the Bums Forest.
The novel s ending is masterful and mysterious: the voices of all three characters overlap in interior monologues. In symbolic contrast to The Waste Land -like rain predicted throughout the novel, Brother builds a fire to warm them. All three confront their separate demons as the flames burn and grow, and it is unclear by the novel s conclusion whether the flames will consume them or simply reignite their will to live. Brother has the last word, speaking for all three of them as he expresses fascination with the fire and curiosity about what it feels like: I can understand why kids do it cause I want to touch myself just like one I want to put my hand in I want to go to smoke and see how high (186). In a novel filled with pain, this final image is one of transcendence, but it comes at a price.
To say that A Glance Away is a complex first novel is to understate the case considerably. Its focused, relentless emotional intensity and its Faulknerian methodology combine to make it a rich introduction to Wideman s work. A review in the New York Times described it as tight, compact, and shining with verbal and dramatic skill, proclaiming Wideman to be a novelist of high seriousness and depth. 5 Despite its praise, the review reveals dated expectations of what black literature should be, focusing excessively on the novel s minor concerns with drug addiction. In a recent article Keith Byerman argued that the novel s lack of critical attention might also have to do with its homoerotic content, which has proven troublesome for black critical discourse. 6 For Guzzio, critical inattention to this work is the starting point of a misreading of Wideman s works in general, as critics have failed to see the complex hybridity of his work, instead labeling it Eurocentric in one period or Afrocentric in another. 7
Regardless of this debate, the poetry of T. S. Eliot connects Wideman s first novel to his second, Hurry Home . Wideman has admitted that Thurley in A Glance Away resembles Prufrock, 8 and the same can be observed of Charles Webb in Hurry Home: at one point Webb walks along the [Spanish] beach dreaming a Prufrock dream of himself (99). He even rolls up his trousers, just as Eliot s sad protagonist does. Wideman has claimed that his early novels were an attempt to hook the world of black experience into what I thought was something that would give those situations and people a kind of literary resonance, legitimize that world by infusing echoes of T. S. Eliot and other Continental masters.

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